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D&D Burgoo (3.5): What a charming suggestion

Gnome Stew reader Noumenon requested the following article [1] in our Suggestion Pot [2]:

I just want to know how you deal with spells like Hypnotism, Charm Person, and Suggestion. Monsters you know the PCs are going to try to kill, but how do you plan for them to start controlling your NPCs?

Martin’s note: I want to personally apologize to Noumenon, who emailed me about this article just over one year ago. I forwarded that email to the Gnome Stew author mailing list…and then we forgot about it.

We try to get to Suggestion Pot article requests in a timely manner, but for one reason or another, it doesn’t always happen. (We’re chaotic neutral, so I blame our alignment…) Our thanks to Noumenon for waiting so damned long — we hope you like Troy’s article.

We’re in the process of clearing our 2008-2009 Suggestion Pot right now, and we’re putting a process in place to make sure none of your suggestions fall through the cracks in year two. If you’re patiently awaiting an article, thank you — bear with us!

Rule 1: Know the spells

If you have an inkling that one of the players relies heavily on enchantments, go ahead and bookmark those spells in the Player’s Handbook or print them out from an Open Game License source.  Then give them a close read. You’ll find these spells have very specific instructions.

Knowing the limits of the mind-affecting effects of each enchantment spell goes a long way to handling NPCs in those situations. Know what the spell does — and doesn’t allow —is key.
Here is a summary of those effects:

Charm person, Brd 1, Sor/Wiz 1
Effect: The subject regards the caster and his suggestions favorably, as if they were friends
What it doesn’t do: The caster doesn’t get to control the person as if an automaton.

Hypnotism, Brd 1, Sor/Wiz 1
Effect: Subject stares blankly at you and reacts to a single reasonable request or suggestion as if it were two steps more friendly.in attitude.
What it doesn’t do: The subject’s new attitude carries on after the spell’s duration, but only in regard to that specific request.

Suggestion, Brd 2, Sor/Wiz 3
Effect: The subject will attempt to complete a task or activity if the caster makes a reasonable suggestion or request in a sentence or two.
What it doesn’t do: The subject won’t perform a harmful act, and such a suggestion ends the spell.

Dominate Person, Brd 4, Sor/Wiz 5
Effect: The subjects actions are controlled by commands given by the caster.
What it doesn’t do: Self-destructive orders are not carried out and commands given against its nature allow the subject to make a saving throw with a +2 bonus.

Rule 2: Go with the flow

NPCs under enchantments can be a lot of fun to roleplay, actually. (Remember, the DM is a roleplayer too). Look at it as an opportunity to stretch those acting muscles. If you’re not careful, you may end up entertaining everyone else at the table when the encounter takes a humorous turn.

Pay specific attention to the commands and instructions issued by the caster in these situations. If there’s a chance to follow the instruction literally — but ignore the intent — feel free to exploit it.  If the caster give an imprecise instruction, look for loopholes to frustrate the players, if that’s your wish.

They’ll learn they have keep things simple, which is more keeping with the intent of the descriptions of the rules anyway.

Rule 3: Encourage the caster to be creative

Through these trial and failure moments, your players will learn that it’s better to suggest to the guard, for instance, that he go hunt for wildflowers rather than try to convince him to let you pass. A charmed guard might leave his post to obey a request that she fetch a drink of water for a friend rather than try to convince her that you’re something that you’re obviously not.

The real fun in charms comes when NPCs are asked to do something harmless that ordinarily would be contrary to their personality.

The beautiful merchant’s daughter might not ordinarily give the geeky PC wizard the time of day. But under an enchantment, she might agree to a request for a stroll in a location where witnesses might presume the pair are an item. Later, the PCs could exploit that assumption, (if not win a token of affection, in the bargain).

Rule 4: The NPCs are still in your control

Even under a dominate person spell, the NPC is still the DM’s character. Never relinquish the NPC to the players.  The rules for enchantments all provide means to eventually break the hold of the caster or spell to run its course within a prescribed duration.

Rule fairly and firmly each time an enchanted character is asked to do something. Be true to the NPC’s personality, motivations and attitudes. How long will an NPC who might ordinarily be predisposed to the PCs remain a friend if they later learn they were enchanted by them. Conversely, will an enemy become more vindictive because they were tricked by a simple enchantment? In fact, a PC that tries to presume too much control over an NPC or to take liberties with that NPC will likely find they’ve overreached and will trigger something that will allow that control to be broken.

What are the consequences of that act?

Even if the NPC doesn’t react negatively (if they remember the enchantment at all), word will get around that the PC in question uses enchantments. Attitudes may vary from setting to setting, of course, but reasonable people in any community are going to view enchanters with suspicion, if not indignant outrage. Pinning the character’s interactions with the community is another good check on players that attempt to abuse enchantments.

Rule 5: Know when to bend the rules

Enchantment spells work because they really help define the setting in ways that, say the old reliable magic missile, can’t.  Think about the tone and feel of your campaign and the place enchantments have in it. You might find you can give the PCs greater leeway, or conversely instill greater restrictions, depending on the mores and cultural taboos of your world.

Generally speaking, if your setting has a gentler, light-hearted atmosphere, you might get away with tweaking your enchantments.If your realm resembles the Carolingian romances or a fairy-tale kingdom, then it might be great fun enchanting the recurring villain, a scheming sorceress, and the kingdom’s forthright stick-in-the-mud champion and convincing them both they have fallen in love with each other. You’d probably have to grant an allowance in how enchantments work to pull it off, but the hi jinks that result will probably be worth it.

On the other hand, perhaps your setting has the trappings of voodoo. Enchantments smack of zombie control and the like. Everyday folk will take a very different viewpoint of enchanters in such a setting, and as DM you might have to enforce restrictions on enchantments depending on the circumstances.

In closing

In any event, look at enchantments as an opportunity to flex DMing muscle, to expand your command of the game and to take cues from the player’s suggestions and charms. More often than not, you’ll be rewarded with some inspired roleplaying.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "D&D Burgoo (3.5): What a charming suggestion"

#1 Comment By Psygnnosed On May 19, 2009 @ 2:08 am

What about the opposite? When an NPC charms/suggest a PC?
It is extremely frustrating for a player when, during combat, if we apply the rules as they are, to go “pick some wild flowers for the next… nine hours”!

I try to avoid the spells that “lock” the players, such as hold and charm-like spells. I know they are part of the game, and try to apply some “house rules” to limitate the effects. For instance, when I cast “hold person”, in the first round the PC can only make a single action, in the second he is “held”, in the third he can once again make one single action, but suffers from some conditions (becomes flat-footed, for instance), and from there on he can act normally.
We play in 3.5, and I have always been very careful to avoid “shutting down” a player for more than one round. But I do understand that this makes the monsters much weaker.
And no, PC death is not a common option.
TPK is something that doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.
But what to do when I have a monster that cast suggestion, at-will, with Will DC 24+?

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 19, 2009 @ 9:18 am

[3] – I hear what you’re saying. Personally, as a DM, I use cause fear spells with restraint. I’ve been on the other end of the equation, telling the others on my initiative turn “I’m running another 6 squares away from the battle.” At least with hold person, I’m still in the room.

That said, there is a legitimate school of thought that goes “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander.” If the PCs rely on a tactic, then it’s fair game for the DM. So, if your players are real charmers, as it were, they should not be surprised to have the same spells used against them. Fair is fair, after all.

You know your players best, of course. I’m intrigued by your minimalist approach to risk. My advice is to say: It’s OK to challenge your players. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with a “magic lite” game where most of your opponents fight with bone, sinew and steel — which is sounds like you’ve got. That eliminates having to deal with opponents with enchantment powers.

As to your direct question: What to do with a monster with a high Save DC? To maintain the flavor of the game, I’d lower the DC considerably, or not use the monster at all.

Let me leave you with this, which would be my personal thought process for my more straight-up D&D game: At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with holding players accountable to their choices. Each had an opportunity during character creation to make Wisdom the ability with the best modifier, select a class with good Will saves, take Iron Will as a feat and invest in a scroll, item or potion that buffs Will saves. That they chose otherwise is their option — and I’m sure they’ve splattered many a monster because of those other feat and class selections.

But if a monster of the appropriate level occasionally (and note I say, occasionally) exploits a weakness in the party, so be it. I think you’ll find the players’ creativity to cope with new challenges will be spurred and they will come up with imaginative and exciting solutions to compensate for their shortcomings.

Either that or they’ll run away … in which case a new adventure and encounter awaits them around the next corner! 🙂

#3 Comment By Razjah On May 19, 2009 @ 9:40 am

In a 3.5 game I played in we used the enchantment spells mostly as an out for NPC stuff. We could not sell this chain shirt *casts spell* “Well what about the chain shirt worn by [hero of legend goes here].” We had to come up with some creative ways to earn some cash since we were each more than 10000 gp behind the expected character wealth. We didn’t try to abuse the mechanics, just find some ways to try to get the magic items that we weren’t finding.

I think that these spells more than any other spell require the GM and player to be on very similar levels of thinking in order for everyone to enjoy this aspect of the game.

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On May 19, 2009 @ 9:42 am

[4] – I’ve always disliked fear type spells. I prefer mechanics that cause a simple penalty (-5 due to being afraid). It still lets your character try to act, but it makes it harder for them to achieve the goal.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 19, 2009 @ 9:53 am


“I think that these spells more than any other spell require the GM and player to be on very similar levels of thinking in order for everyone to enjoy this aspect of the game.”

That’s an excellent point. Being on the same wavelength comes with time and trust.

I think if the DM understands where the PCs are coming from, most of the time, though, you’ll receive the desired results.

#6 Comment By Psygnnosed On May 19, 2009 @ 10:20 am

Troy: “…holding players accountable…”
You know, you made an excellent point there! Most times players don’t choose this feat or that because there are “other better things”… but, nevertheless, it’s their choice.

My “minimalist” approach, as you called it, makes me revise everything that can leave a player “out of the game”. I don’t use nauseated conditions, for instance. And concerning “fear”, as you and John pointed out, I only use two levels: the “lower” gives them -2 to “everything”, and the “bigger” (like the spell, or dragon frightful presence) gives them -4, and puts them “flat-footed” during the span of the combat.

I can’t judge yet if the “same rule applies both ways”, since all four players are melee players. Yup… they don’t have arcane spellcasters.
Concerning PC death, I never quite understand what is the point of some DM when I read game recaps and see stuff like “this session, two characters died thanks to my ubber-killer trap/ubber-killer monster”.
I created a house rule specifically stating that when a character dies, the player rolls a die and he permanently loses 1 point in a random hability score. He is staggered until he sleeps for eight hours, and he loses an amount of money equal to level x 1000 GP. And that’s it.
What’s the point of killing a character with three years of background and “world building”?
Also, draining levels is not a good option, because frontline fighters would easily gain three or more levels’ difference towards the rest of the group.

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On May 19, 2009 @ 10:33 am

We don’t play d&d, and that is the basis of this thread.
Still, I feel compelled to mention that I have always considered the presence/commonality of mind-affecting magic to coincide with more developed, role-playing intensive games.

My bardic PC’s know their mentalist spells by heart, but are a little weak on their combat spells. And that tells you a lot about the game we play.

Good thread.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 19, 2009 @ 11:20 am

Good suggestions and detail for the charm spells– that’s good to remember. I know that I’ve had trouble keeping the boundaries of the spells clear, and I hate taking the time to look up every spell…

[3] – I agree that “locking” spells aren’t much fun– but they’re not that much worse than the alternatives. There are a lot of good ways to take a character out for one full fight– like hypnosis and dominate, but also by dealing lots of damage, death, flesh to stone, “Power Word X”, etc. I started off trying to remove those effects, but they’re so ingrained in the system that I now shrug and just assume that a some characters will have to miss out on a fight or two. Over a campaign, it’s not that big a deal– as long as it isn’t the same character always getting taken out. Often, taking out one character completely changes the dynamic of the party’s fighting style, which is a fun way to shake things up.

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 20, 2009 @ 8:00 am

[6] – DNAPhil could speak with more authority on this, but it sounds like rather than deconstructing D&D to suit your tastes — which itself can be a fun exercise — the d20 game Iron Heroes sounds right in your group’s wheelhouse. You have a group of melee fighters taking on anything and everything — that sounds exactly like Iron Heroes.

#10 Comment By Noumenon On May 20, 2009 @ 11:27 am

Thanks for the article. Seems like you mostly think of the spells as granting the players’ requests. Maybe if I get the players to phrase everything as “requests,” rather than just playing the NPC as favorable to them in everything they do, they won’t end up getting all their information and bedding them besides, just from one charm person.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On May 20, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

[7] – “I request you tell me what I need to know, and slip off your knickers baby. :)”

It’s hard to know how far to go with an NPCs reactions. I like to do it on a sliding scale.

NPC charmed.
1 – Little request, (i.e. Get me a cup of water.)
5 – Medium request, (i.e. Tell me how to get into the castle of your evil master.)
8 – High End Request (i.e. Fight with me against yoru evil master)
10 – Huge Request (i.e. Walk off that cliff so I don’t have to talk to you anymore.)

The higher up the scale the request is, the less likely the NPC is going to be to do it. If the spell lets them be dominated, it might not be an option for them to resist, but if they’re charmed, then they may deny a 5 or 6, but a 2 or 3 is right on. It all goes back to Troy’s rule #1, Know the spells.

#12 Comment By Loonook On May 21, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

[8] – Gotta say that his is one of the more interesting things I’ve seen when it comes to charm effects… and a heck of a list when it comes down to judging reactions.

With a little tweaking, this could definitely become part of my game :).



#13 Comment By Tacoma On July 21, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

A lot of this heartache over revisioning ignores that you could just as easily have cast a death spell on him. The way I see it, if your game system has a spell where you die if affected, all spells of equal power level should be ruled as equal in effectiveness.

If in D&D a 7th level spell is save-or-die, then a 7th level charm should result in absolute servitude on a failed save.

That said, a 1st level spell probably should not be save-or-die. That is, a Sleep spell followed by throat-slitting shouldn’t be as effective as a 7th level death spell. Hence the level limits on creatures affected.

So just say that a charm means absolute unequivocal domination, but with limits. A Level 1 Charm spell only works against creatures up to level 4.

Problem is why not apply this to Paralyzation and Blindness and such? And the lower effectiveness against high level creatures is already assumed in the saving throw system.

The problem with charm person isn’t that you’d tell someone to go commit suicide. The problem is that you’d ask him to help you lift a treasure chest and everyone would stab him in the back while he’s looking away. So it’s just as bad as Sleep but without the target-level limit.

So I don’t know how to fix it properly for game balance. No charms until you hit the 5th level spells? Everyone saves against charms every time you ask them to do anything? These don’t seem satisfactory.

#14 Comment By Creature On August 18, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

Generally I just roll with it, but I have an unofficial unspoken house rule that you can’t charm, dominate or similarly enchant “the big guy”, it simply will not work so do not bother.